Buying Cameras in the Age of Firmware Updates

Buying Cameras in the Age of Firmware Updates

It was the best of times, it was the worst of times. Okay, not really, but choosing a camera these days when that same camera can change so much from year to year can make buying decisions all the more difficult.

Let me start out by saying the willingness of camera companies to essentially completely overhaul their camera multiple times throughout the product life cycle via downloadable firmware updates is a good thing. A very, very good thing. On multiple occasions in the last five years, I have purchased a camera that I thought to be really amazing, only to be essentially gifted a newer, better camera only a few months down the line after version 2.0 of the firmware arrived. This development means that, when buying a camera from many manufacturers, you can almost expect to get three cameras for the price of one. You get the initial model, which is promising but with bugs and quirks, the second edition where the 2.0 firmware update improves a handful of bugs but still doesn’t quite reach the level of perfection, then the 3.0 version, where you suddenly find you have a camera nearly unrecognizable from the one you took out of the original box.  

In some cases, like in the case of the Nikon Z 6 and Z 7, the changes can be drastic. Still a DSLR shooter, for the most part, I was not an early adopter of the Z system. I ended up seizing on a Z 6 only this year for its video capabilities and because it happened to be at a ridiculous discount at the time. While I didn’t buy the camera when it was first released, I couldn’t help but hear about how bad the autofocus performance was on the Z system. But, by the time I bought my Z 6, long after the release of the latest firmware, I encountered very few issues with autofocus at all. Surely, this was the result of the multiple firmware updates since its initial release. Because I never owned the Z 6 with the 1.0 firmware, I can’t speak to how it performed, but the one I bought has been a joy to use.

But, of course, that goes to a larger question. How do you know how to properly evaluate a camera when many of the more nitpicky issues can be so easily solved via firmware? It’s hardly a problem specific to Nikon either. All I heard about the Canon EOS R5 for months leading up to its release was how epic the 8K was going to be. Then, all I heard about upon its actual release was how the camera was an epic fail because of overheating issues in 8K. Then, with firmware updates, it appears as though many of those issues have been resolved. So, those people who canceled their preorders after the initial overheating backlash may now find themselves wishing they had kept their place in line.

Of course, the obvious question is why can’t manufacturers just get it right straight out of the box? In all my years shooting DSLRs, I have kept my firmware up to date, but I never felt as though it fundamentally changed the camera. Rather, updates would just fix small bugs and sometimes not even be worth worrying about in the first place. But, nowadays, it seems with mirrorless cameras especially that the idea of massive firmware updates is built into the release strategy of the camera.

I’m guessing there’s a marketing logic to this. Perhaps the companies have set release dates that can’t be changed without upsetting stockholders. Perhaps they worry that if they delay the release of their new camera systems by a few months to fix the bugs that they will be scooped by the competition and become yesterday’s news. My own inclination might be to delay the release a couple of months until you can fix the overheating problem, just as an example, so that you can avoid the bad press. Then again, others might say there's no such thing as bad press. The autofocus question continues to dog Nikon even though the Z 6 with the current firmware is more than capable of consistent autofocus. Yet, that memory stuck so hard in early adopters’ minds that upon the recent release of the Z 6 II, the autofocus performance is all anyone really wants to know about.

So, how do you as a shopper protect yourself? If you buy a new camera today, there’s a good chance that it will be improved via firmware. But can you really bank on that? What if they never quite find a way to update the most important issue to your workflow? Or what if there’s something in the physical camera design that makes certain improvements impossible?

Then again, if you are heavily invested in one camera system, but a competitor releases a 1.0 product that beats the socks off of your own brand's 1.0 version, how quick are you to make a shift? Let's go back to our Z 6 example again. If you are a heavily invested Nikonian and gave up all hope for the company after the initial Z 6 performed poorly with autofocus and you sold all your gear to go to a different system, only to have that same Z 6 transformed by firmware three years later, then you might end up with some serious buyer's remorse and likely a thinning wallet from having bought into an entirely different system.  

The problem is that when we are shopping for newly released cameras these days, we are not really shopping for finished products. We are shopping for what a system currently is, but also for what that system could become. This makes it very difficult to compare apples to apples.

So, instead of getting too wrapped up in the more nitpicking aspects of a camera, I try (sometimes more successfully than others) to take a broader picture view before purchasing the camera. For instance, clearly, the original Z cameras weren’t perfect. But having used Nikon professionally for almost two decades, I have enough faith that they will be able to figure it out. Until they release a camera that is out and out unusable, I tend to trust them because of my own experience. Even things like not having two card slots, which isn’t something that could be fixed via firmware, isn’t something that’s going to cause me to sell off 15 years worth of legacy glass and bodies because another brand’s version did have them. It might mean that I continue to use my existing DSLRs rather than switch to mirrorless until they release a mirrorless body with two card slots, but it’s unlikely to make me immediately jump ship altogether.

Likewise with Canon. If you are a Canon shooter and have a long history with them, you are likely to believe they will be able to figure out the overheating issue. In actuality, it apparently only took them a few weeks to improve in that area. You might also be likely to stick with them for reasons that don’t involve the camera itself. Perhaps you really like their RF glass. No matter what brand you buy into, the lenses will be around far longer than the camera bodies, so falling in love with the lenses or other accessories in the brand ecosystem first can overcome a myriad of firmware hiccups.

Other cameras may have hiccups in their 1.0 releases, but they still are the best fit for your particular workflow and existing gear. Or maybe sticking with a particular brand’s color science helps you maintain a consistent look that you are known for in your photography. There is a number of reasons why we choose the brands that we choose. And now, more than ever, it makes financial sense to consider an entire brand ecosystem rather than getting ourselves too wrapped up in the bugaboos of a camera’s initial release. That doesn’t mean that you will always have the best camera on the market. For the most part, different camera brands these days will continue to leapfrog one another as to who is the king of the hill. With dramatic firmware updates, these lead changes can happen every few months. But, by giving a camera system time to improve, you will likely save yourself a lot of money and heartbreak by not switching brands back and forth in search of a perfect camera that doesn’t actually exist.

Of course, there are perfectly logical reasons to trade in all your gear and switch brands. And just as companies can earn our trust over years of service, they can also earn their dismissal by showing signs that they have stopped listening to customer concerns and their product quality is decreasing. But, in the age of firmware, you can’t be too hasty to pronounce a final judgement on our technological toys. There’s a good chance they might just grow on you.

Christopher Malcolm's picture

Christopher Malcolm is a Los Angeles-based lifestyle, fitness, and advertising photographer, director, and cinematographer shooting for clients such as Nike, lululemon, ASICS, and Verizon.

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Canon is the least favorite to provide a firmware update to improve a camera. They pretty much only fix phenomenon's, you'll never see any feature updates to the R, RP, 1dx3 that update AF to that of the R5 or R6. Sony has a better history taking a page from Apple when it comes to firmware updates with actual features across there bodies.

I purchased the EOS R about the time that Canon was eager to compete with the Sony mirrorless line which was routinely firmware upgrading features. I won't say that Canon promised they would be the same, but there was a lot of rumors that Canon was reinventing itself and was was changing it tune. I knew at the time there were issues with the multifunction bar sensitivity and feature assignment limitations and that the EOS R did not offer focus stacking whereas its little brother RP did. I hoped that Canon through firmware would address these, but some two years later they have shown themselves to be the old Canon, just pretending to be hip and quasi-innovative.

For all those Canon buyers I would simply say beware. Don't accept their promises. If the camera doesn't do something it likely never will. They make great cameras and I actually like my EOS R very much. But they are like car dealers; once its off the lot they could care less about you.

Fujifilm - firmware as a feature update. Canon / Nikon - firmware as a bug fix. Sony - firmware as a means of product differentiation. Manufacturers do not treat firmware equally - at best it is used to make old cameras feel new, and at worst it is used as a justification for releasing half-baked hardware.

Unfortunately Fujifilm's approach to firmware updates is no longer what it used to be. With their high iteration schedule of new cameras, any camera that is older than 2 years rarely gets an update anymore. Whether feature upgrade or bug fix. Their flagship camera X-H1 (2018 introduction) is the saddest example of this new approach.

I own an XT2 that I don't think it's reasonable to expect them to update anymore.

I own XT3s that I don't think it's reasonable to expect any 5.x updates for, although I'm certain there will be some 4.x updates.

I also own a Canon 5D3 that is the exact same camera it was when I bought it in 2012.

Fuji is doing more than enough and is actually setting the standard and pushing the industry the way Sony has done with full frame mirrorless.

The XH1 is an anomaly. It was an idea that failed and they cut their losses. Firmware updates were not going to help the XH1 catch up to the XT3, so it didn't make sense to bother.

It’s not only the X-H1 which release planning was indeed not Fuji’s best idea, but unfortunately also cameras like the X-E3, the X-T30 and even the X-Pro3. All their updates where minor bugfixes, adaptations to the new XF50/f1 and the EF500 issue fix.

I’ve been a Fuji shooter since 2013 and have had 5 cameras and about 12-13 lenses of them. I’ve seen the pace of firmware updates go down and that of new camera introductions go up...

The possibility of future firmware updates should be the absolute last factor considered when deciding what product to buy, and only where one has reached a place where product A, B, or C are each equally perfect for your needs. Change my mind (don't, it can't be done =P)

It does strike me as a little odd why Fuji are the only ones to implement real features with firmware updates, similar to Apple and Andriod with OS updates.

I guess it's down to the business structure of the likes of Canon and Sony et al who have their corporate fingers in lots of pies besides photography. They are in the business of making money and want you to buy new hardware.

Days gone by when Canon/Nikon ruled by price point trying to cover market share with so many models and even lens iterations. Basic bodies were stripped down and rebadged with options up to the flagship. Today not one camera company can sustain that selection not even Leica if Leica’s lenses aren’t its problem it’s their flagship camera, or firmware updates.

Time races as R&D crawls eventually we get an offer to buy a camera or lens that was a dream five years ago and now a reality but we are still constantly three steps back for every one new product we buy.

Smart money buys previously experienced and never looks back.

Sony does fix things and 'occasionally' adds features via firmware. As someone who has owned ten Sony cameras dating back to the Konica-Minolta 5D (so actually 11 in that alpha/a7x line), I'm disappointed by how limited the firmware updates actually are. Within 12-18 months of buying any new camera, Sony releases its updates via the next camera rather than updating the one just purchased. For instance, there's no reason Sony couldn't have have added additional focusing features to my a7Riii without having to upgrade to the a7Riv or a9 or a7iii. If there's a reason to eventually find another brand, that will be it.

Camera manufactories sells cameras, not free firmware updates.
Every time they make a free firmware update, they earn basically nothing, but every time they release a new camera, they make money of somebody buying it.

Maybe not from you, but from somebody else, that might have just bought a cheaper and older model, had the manufacture giving that older camera the same features as the new camera, but through free firmware updates.

Olympus is another company that does a great job with updates. My EM-1 Mk2 turned into a far more capable tool after the 3.01 update. It does not seem that it is about marketing for them, but to share technology gains as much as possible with their customers. Well, come to think of it, that's marketing.

I wonder if this is the Apple effect at work. Ever since the iPhone came along and made smartphones mainstream people have come to expect software updates on most digital devices. Sure, firmware updates existed long before that, heck, I remember when software companies used to send you a floppy disk with bug fixes. Firmware updates themselves seemed largely optional and pretty much consisted of bug fixing errors that only a handful of people had experienced. Sometimes you had to buy the updates!

So I wonder if the smartphone revolution has permeated into our expectations of other devices. We've come to expect manufacturers to add updates and features. My first proper camera, a Minolta Dynax 7000i served me well for years and years without requiring updates. But I, and I dare say most film shooters didn't even think about the possibility of adding features or fixes via a firmware update. Nowadays people change their cameras as quickly as their mobile phones just to keep up with the bleeding edge. I reckon most of the time it's due to software features rather than hardware.

Then there's planned obsolescence. Like smartphones, one of the reasons we upgrade so quickly is because the manufacturers stop supporting them. Yes, they still take photos, but they introduce new software tools that don't work with older models.

Good point about the iPhone effect. That probably does factor in.